By guest writer, Nicola Haston
Ayurveda is often referred to as the ‘sister science of yoga’; it is a holistic health system that has been used in India for thousands of years, and is as old as civilisation itself. Ayurveda concentrates on preventative rather that reactionary medicine, and has all its roots in nature, or our natural way of being.
Sanskrit texts from the 6th century BC are some of the oldest records of Ayurvedic medicine and form the basis of this medicinal system. Ayurveda progressed throughout the Vedic period, and has been influenced by both Hinduism and Jainism. These days many Ayurvedic practices can be seen all over the world – from monks in the Himalayas to the Kardashians in the USA!
Ayurveda looks at each person as an individual with their own needs and requirements, whilst fitting into the universe as a whole. Each person has a Dosha, made up of their prakriti and vikruti. The prakriti is how we are born, with a balance of earth, fire, water, air and ether. We should strive to maintain this balance throughout our lives, however there are, inevitably, often imbalances. Our current state of imbalance is called vikruti and this is what would be assessed were you to visit an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Each person’s dosha constitutes a combination of the five great elements and can be determined by careful observation of habits, behaviours and physical traits, by visiting a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner - or you can get a rough idea by filling out one of the many tests available online. Knowing your dosha means you can more easily identify the imbalances in your life, as well as taking preventative measures to avoid further or future imbalances.
I, myself, am Pitta-Kapha. This for me means that I am predominantly Pitta which gives me a fiery nature. I’m emotional, always starting new projects, looking for challenges and looking for the next thing to do, which makes me restless; but the Kapha in me makes me lazy, I like to be comfortable, I have oily hair and skin, and for a long time I was overweight.
Excess Vata energy tends to make people anxious; they spend much of their time in their head, and are predisposed to being very slim with dry skin. Knowing your constitution means that you can look at your lifestyle and makes adjustments where imbalances are found, however there are also many lifestyle adjustments everybody can make to feel more balanced.
Different phases in the day are governed by different elements and energies, starting with a Kapha phase from Sunrise until late morning, then Pitta from late morning until afternoon, and then Vata governs the end of the day until around 10pm when Kapha energy is once again strong, and the cycle continues. From this we can all see that, despite our individual doshic constitution, we can observe good daily practices to achieve balance in our lives.
It is best to wake just before sunrise whilst Vata is giving us lots of energy to get up and go, and to counteract a slump in energy we should take a walk in the early morning sun. I also recommend you eat a light breakfast as digestion is not as strong in the morning, and light exercise such as yoga asana or a jog is also beneficial. We should then plan to eat our heartiest meal in the middle of the day when Pitta energy is fuelling our digestive fire. As the day goes on into its Vata period it’s best to keep the mind quiet with yoga asana, reading or the like, and make sure to get to bed by 10pm latest. With this daily schedule you will find yourself with more energy, more focused and definitely more balanced.
Another daily practice that can be useful to people of all doshic make-ups is Neti. Neti is the name given to the exercise of pouring salted water in one nostril and letting it run out through the other. Whilst this sounds very simple, it has a huge range of health benefits. It greatly reduces allergy symptoms, reduces mucus in the respiratory system, improves the immune system and improves quality of breathing. Along with the regular pranayama practice it is one the best things you can do for your respiratory system, and at the same time it will drastically lower your incidence of cold and flu-like conditions.
Oil pulling is another facet of Ayurveda that has lately become fashionable again. It consists of swirling sesame oil around your mouth – much like you would mouthwash – once a day, on an empty stomach; although other oils may be used, such as olive oil or coconut oil, again depending on your individual constitution some oils may be better for you than others. Oil pulling has been shown to greatly improve the health of teeth and gums, whitens teeth, and reduces ama – the toxins excreted from the body as can often be seen on the tongue in the morning.
Self-massage, or abhyanga, is another basic exercise that can and should be practiced by everybody. The oil used can be chosen given personal preference and should complement one’s constitution – I like to use coconut oil, except on my face as it makes me break out in spots, which isn’t uncommon, and have also found olive and almond oils work very well. The name is fairly self-explanatory, the point is to rub oil on to every part of your body by massaging each area to awaken the muscles, help cell metabolism and so encourage removal of toxins from the body, all the while moisturising the skin and awakening your senses of smell and touch with the oil. If you’re looking for one aspect of Ayurveda to get yourself started, this is a great one as it feels self-indulgent, but you’re actually really nourishing your body and soul and improving your overall health and wellbeing.
Nutrition is a cornerstone of Ayurveda, because as we all know good nutrition can make a world of difference to your health. It’s recommended to follow a vegetarian diet, although being so closely related to yoga and its core value of Ahimsa (non-violence) many follow a vegan diet. Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and pulses are recommended in plenty to ensure adequate nutrition and energy needs are met, whilst unnatural, processed and reheated foods are to be avoided. However, looking through a traditional cookbook you will see ghee and yoghurt often used, but these can easily be substituted with coconut oil and coconut milk.
Eating meat weighs down the digestive system as it takes a long time and a lot of energy to properly digest, and dead meat being in our gut for a long time leads to decay and the formation of toxins. It also brings the suffering of the animal that died, and subsequently guilt, which all has negative effects on our physical body. Whilst many, many centuries ago Ayurvedic practitioners might have eaten meat, and even prescribed it, it has always been stated that meat reared in an unnatural environment or from animals that have eaten foods which do not form part of their natural diet are ‘unwholesome’ – there by excluding all meat from modern day production in our diets.
These are just a few practices from the great medicinal system that is Ayurveda, but they are the few I believe to be the most accessible for people with no prior knowledge of holistic health. I truly believe a holistic approach to health is the best approach, as so many modern day illnesses are avoidable if we just treat our bodies well and listen to what they are telling us. Even with just one or two changes to your daily routine you will quickly see an improvement to your overall health and wellbeing.
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